DNA testing is being conducted on residents of a small village in China to determine if the residents — many of whom have uncharacteristically European features — could be descendants of a group of Roman soldiers who disappeared from history about fifty years before Christ.
The town’s link with Rome was first suggested by a professor of Chinese history at Oxford in the 1950s. Homer Dubs pulled together stories from the official histories, which said that Liqian was founded by soldiers captured in a war between the Chinese and the Huns in 36BC, and the legend of the missing army of Marcus Crassus, a Roman general.
In 53BC Crassus was defeated disastrously and beheaded by the Parthians, a tribe occupying what is now Iran, putting an end to Rome’s eastward expansion.
But stories persisted that 145 Romans were taken captive and wandered the region for years. Prof Dubs theorised that they made their way as a mercenary troop eastwards, which was how a troop “with a fish-scale formation” came to be captured by the Chinese 17 years later.
Certainty is hard to establish when dealing with such thin threads of evidence stretched over so many centuries. One scholarly study of this subject cautions that the connection may be unlikely (sadly, I could not identify the author to give him/her credit).
Still, this kind of historical mystery is fascinating.
UPDATE (12/31/07): Here are some more details about the research that is being conducted in China to unravel this historical mystery.